Pubdate: Mon, 14 Mar 2016
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.
Author: Sarah Breitenbach, Stateline News Service


ITHACA, N.Y. - A bustling economy. Record-low unemployment. A 
ballooning heroin problem.

That's how Mayor Svante Myrick describes Ithaca, where he hopes to 
open the nation's first safe injection facility - a place where 
heroin users can shoot their illegal drugs under medical supervision 
and without fear of arrest.

His proposal, part of a plan to address drug abuse in the college 
town of 31,000 in central New York, is not a novel idea. Safe 
injection sites, which also connect clients to treatment programs and 
offer emergency care to reverse overdoses, exist in 27 cities in 
other parts of the world. Some have been around for decades.

But no safe havens for injecting illegal drugs exist in the United 
States, which is experiencing an epidemic of opioid addiction and a 
rising tide of overdose deaths. Some lawmakers in California and 
Maryland want to change that and make legal what addiction 
specialists say is already going on at many clinics or 
needle-exchange programs across the country.

Proponents of the sites say they reduce the risk of dying from heroin 
use because addicts are drawn out from alleys, public restrooms and 
run-down buildings and into supervised settings where they can be 
quickly treated for overdose symptoms. Once there, access to clean 
needles reduces an addict's exposure to infections, as well as 
diseases such as hepatitis C and AIDS.

Supporters also say drug users are more likely to pursue addiction 
treatment once they develop trusting relationships with clinic staffers.

Other lawmakers, however, warn that supervised heroin shooting 
galleries run contrary to state and federal drug laws and would 
encourage illegal drug abuse.

In New York's Tompkins County, a jurisdiction of just over 100,000 
people that includes Ithaca, at least 14 deaths were drug-related in 
2014, up from six in 2010. An addiction treatment center there 
reported that more than a quarter of its admissions in 2014 were for 
opioids, second only to alcohol.

"We're not the capital of heroin in America or even in New York 
state," Mr. Myrick said. "But we're losing people."

Studies of safe injection sites, largely in Canada and Australia, 
have found that they help reduce overdoses and don't increase drug 
use or trafficking in their communities.

Sites in the United States could violate the federal Controlled 
Substances Act, which prohibits possession of drugs such as heroin or 
cocaine or operating places where people use them. But Congress could 
change the law or the Justice Department could make exceptions for 
the sites, said Leo Beletsky, a law and health sciences professor at 
Northeastern University.

Most state laws mirror the federal act and also would need to be 
amended to allow injection sites to operate legally, he said. Though 
if states begin legalizing them, the federal government could choose 
not to prosecute people who run and use them - just as the Justice 
Department has decided not to enforce federal laws for possessing, 
processing or selling marijuana in states that have legalized it.

"Do you try to solve these [legal] problems first? Or do you proceed 
with what you know is needed, the innovation that is needed in, 
really, a time of national crisis?" Mr. Beletsky said.

Advocates would rather establish the injection sites through 
legislative action, but creating the sites through executive orders 
issued by mayors or county executives could create quicker access to 
care, he said.

Even with the approval of the district attorney in Tompkins County, 
Gwen Wilkinson, Mr. Myrick is not interested in opening a site in 
Ithaca without permission from the New York Legislature and Gov. 
Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.

"Our hope is once this is put in place, we'll be ready for the next 
epidemic," he said. But such proposals are not without opposition. 
New York state Assemblyman Edward Ra, a Republican, opposes Mr. 
Myrick's Ithaca plan. He said it would stand in the way of 
cooperation among local, state and federal law enforcement and that 
the state should focus instead on treating more heroin addicts, Mr. Ra said.

"I object to the idea that this drug can be used safely. It's a drug 
that kills people,"
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom